Russia’s Syrian army

Bassel Oudat , Thursday 19 Jul 2018

Russia is expanding its military control of Syria in preparation for what may be a US-backed Russian takeover of the country as a whole

Syrian rebels
Syrian rebels and their relatives evacuating the southern city of Daraa on Tuesday (Photo: AFP )

Russia has won control over the town of Deraa in southern Syria, as it has over Aleppo in the north, a large portion of Homs in central Syria, and much of the countryside.

As its territorial control expands, the areas under the control of the Syrian opposition shrink, though Russia has also prevented Syrian regime forces from replacing opposition forces in areas ceded by the opposition.

On 6 July, the largest Syrian opposition factions signed a ceasefire agreement with Russia. However, this was not a victory for the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, as it required regime forces to retreat to the lines they had held before the battle for Deraa.

It also prohibited police or security personnel from entering the conquered areas, and insisted that the government restore public services as quickly as possible.

Moreover, the leaders of the factions that signed the agreement with Russia were given responsibility for security in their areas.

These entailed collecting heavy weapons, managing the affairs of the fighters, and overseeing internal security in towns and villages falling within their scope.

The Syrian regime adhered to the Russian-brokered agreement for no more than two days, with its forces later entering and plundering towns and villages that Russian aerial bombardments had voided of their inhabitants.

The Russians then delivered a stern warning that these forces should stop their pillaging and withdraw immediately or become legitimate targets for Russian forces.

The regime had thought that the conquests it had won with massive Russian air support would allow it to assume control of the most important stronghold of the opposition and the cradle of the Syrian Revolution, effectively ending the revolution.

However, Russia’s aims in the south of the country seem to have been different, including the outcome of a US-Russian-Israeli deal regarding the need to eliminate the Iranian military presence in southern Syria up to a distance of at least 80 km from the Israeli border.

During its recent campaign in the south, Russia focused on destroying the opposition groups using intensive firepower.

After securing control over the south, it concluded ceasefire agreements with the four largest groups and divided the south into four military zones under the command of leaders from the opposition groups.

These were granted extensive leeway, which they used to eliminate weaker rivals, ally with stronger ones, and restructure their areas as they pleased. The Russians also used this strategy following the break-up of the former Soviet Union in Chechnya.

The Syrian opposition leaders who signed the truce agreements with Russia are required to take in and hand over heavy weapons, in exchange for which they can exercise influence over civil society in their regions.

They have the authority to appoint members of town councils, to regulate the affairs of officers, dissidents and fighters under their command, and to present them with the choice of joining the regime’s “Fifth Corps” at the service of the government or pack their bags and move to Idlib in the far north of the country.

The “Fifth Corps,” or Fifth Attack Troop Corps, was formed by the Russians in November 2016 and tasked with “eliminating terrorism” in Syria.

Although officially a branch of the Syrian army, in practice it is run and funded by Russia.

It consists of around 45,000 troops, including pro-government conscripts, members of volunteer militias created by the regime, and Russians, together with members of opposition factions that signed agreements with Russia when they were on the verge of military defeat.

Tens of thousands of members of the Syrian opposition factions in the south have begun to enlist in this corps, gradually increasing its size and making it a means to compensate for the shortage of troops in the Syrian army.

Russia will likely rely on it during its offensive against parts of northern Syria that remain outside its control.

However, the Fifth Corps has two main rivals. One is the Republican Guard, which is directly subordinate to Bashar Al-Assad and under the command of his brother Maher Al-Assad and in which Iran has a strong influence.

While the Fifth Corps and Republican Guard are of about equal strength, the former has the advantage of having Russia’s backing. There have been minor clashes between the two formations, during which the Russian influence was in favour of the Fifth Corps.

The second rival group is the collection of Iranian-affiliated militias carrying out Iran’s rival designs in Syria.

In addition to Lebanese Hizbullah militias, these forces consist of other sectarian militias entrenched in areas near the capital and in the capital itself, as well as in areas close to the borders of Lebanon and Israel.

Despite Turkey’s objections, Russia is planning to invade the north, and particularly Idlib, the only remaining area under the control of the Syrian opposition that is strongly backed by Turkey.

Russia will likely use the same strategy it used in the south, aiming to domesticate the members of factions in the north and incorporate them into the Fifth Corps or expel them from Syria altogether.

Then will come the most important step as concerns the military, which is to form the nucleus of an armed force that Russia and the Syrian government will rely on in the interim phase.

This will consist of three components: the forces in the south; the Syrian militias currently serving in the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield Operation in the north; and the Tiger Forces division under the command of Suheil Al-Hassan, an Al-Assad loyalist strongly supported by Russia.

According to dissident officers from the Syrian army and the leaders of factions that have not entered into alliance with Russia, the Syrian army and Iranian militias will not have a presence in most parts of Syria in future, as they will be confined to specific geographic areas decided by Russia.

It seems that Russia has decided that creating a new non-sectarian Syrian army will be easier than repairing the regime’s existing military establishment, whose command structure is corrupt, incapable of being disciplined and impossible to reform.

Russia has therefore opted to restructure the opposition factions, relying temporarily on their current leaders. It has granted them leeway in terms of local influence in order to win their allegiance and facilitate the incorporation of the largest possible number of fighters in the Russian-controlled Fifth Corps.

“The Russians are keeping their plans close to their chest,” Syrian opposition member Said Muqbil told Al-Ahram Weekly. ”But many European diplomatic sources have said that a solution is at hand in Syria and that the end of Al-Assad and his senior officials is just a matter of time.”

Muqbil added that the same sources believe that Israeli and Russian statements regarding accepting Al-Assad’s continued rule had been made for tactical reasons.

Russia has succeeded in establishing military bases in Syria, and it now controls a large portion of the country.

This must have received US approval, as Russia cannot move from the current stage in its intervention in Syria without some form of consensus between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump.

Such a consensus need not imply support for the Al-Assad regime or the continuation of Syria as a failed state, crippled by crises that render it prey to the machinations of regional powers and the powers behind them.

Instead, the two sides will likely agree to curtail Iran, the number one evil in Washington’s eyes, and to tolerate Al-Assad, as Israel’s friend in Syria, in order to set in motion an interim phase that would lead to the end of Iranian influence in Syria.

It would ensure Syrian stability under a tight Russian grip and promote a political solution in which the opposition would take part.

Ultimately, any solution to the Syrian crisis must conform with Israeli and US interests, satisfy Russia, and reduce the Iranian presence in Syria.

It must also inevitably harm the Syrian regime, which is militarily and politically weak, heavily dependent on Russia, and distrusted by friend and foe alike.

Even regime supporters have begun to lose faith, especially after the discovery that the regime has sacrificed the lives of some 200,000 Alawite youths in order to perpetuate itself in power.

The regime has insulted and impoverished the families of these fighters, depriving them, perhaps for decades, of any possibility of coexistence with the rest of the Syrian people.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Russia’s Syrian army 

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